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Spontaneous Combustion

Spontaneous Combustion - 1990

Directed by Tobe Hooper

Written by Tobe Hooper & Howard Goldberg

Starring Brad Dourif, Cynthia Bain, Jon Cypher
William Prince & Melinda Dillon

The most ardent fans of Tobe Hooper's Spontaneous Combustion admit that on the whole this is a terribly constructed and shoddy film, but not only does a spark of creative inspiration exist within it, the film on the whole is a lot of fun. After spending time on it, and after listening to opinions, my affection for it has grown to the point where I can't just let it go, and it has become a full fledged guilty pleasure. My rating for it, however, has to take into account just how disjointed and nonsensical it can be - the narrative wildly striking out in myriad directions as Brad Dourif's performance becomes more hysterical and untethered. It feels like three jigsaw puzzles haphazardly put together to create one picture, but it's saving grace is that non compos mentis aspect to the film, full of fire and fury, which alleviates what otherwise could have been an unintelligible boredom consigning it to being forever forgotten. I won't be forgetting Spontaneous Combustion in a hurry, despite it's somewhat sluggish start.

A government experiment concerning an anti-radiation vaccine makes Brian Bell (Brian Bremer) and his wife Peggy (Stacy Edwards) minor celebrities, and before long they're welcoming a newborn son into the family. Suddenly, while in hospital, both parents spontaneously combust - an event possibly caused by the vaccine. Years later, their son Sam (Brad Dourif) lives his life as a teacher, unaware of what happened to his parents or why he often has intense migraines. His girlfriend, Lisa Wilcox (Cynthia Bain) helps him as best she can with homeopathic medicine, but Sam is troubled when he hears news of someone he's just had an argument with dying in a fire. After an altercation with his ex-wife Rachel (Dey Young) flame spurts from his finger, burning it. When further instances of spontaneous combustion and eruptions of fire follow altercations, Sam becomes embroiled in a race to discover the secrets from his past which include a Dr. Marsh (Jon Cypher) and Rachel's grandfather, Lew Orlander (William Prince).

Spontaneous Combustion's plot description doesn't do justice to the utter madness that engulfs this film much the way flames do whenever Sam loses his temper. A John Landis cameo ends with the filmmaker burning to death inside a radio station's booth after a heated exchange between his character and Sam. Venerated filmmaker André De Toth (director of such films as House of Wax and The Bounty Hunter) appears as a scientist, who then goes on to remove a tiny skull from the head of a spontaneous combustion victim. Reaction shots don't fit into scenes. Melinda Dillon, as Nina - one of the scientists who unravels some of the mystery by contacting Sam - is sporting a bizarre Eastern European accent she struggles with. Phones at various locations sport a wonderful, transparent neon look. Tobe Hooper even manages to squeeze George "Buck" Flower into his movie, along with a cameo for himself as a guy smoking a cigar in a restroom - there's an entertaining spin to everything, and that's why I slowly came to the conclusion that I kind of like it.

Obviously Hooper struggled to raise enough money to continue his feature film career, and on Spontaneous Combustion he lacked the talent to back him up. The most notable film that cinematographer Levie Isaacks ever worked on was 1993 horror film Leprechaun. The composer of this film's score was Graeme Revell - talented, but at the very start of his career. Production Designer Gene Abel only ever worked on a dozen or so B-films before disappearing from view. Art Director Richard N. McGuire worked on a couple of B-films before finding a niche on television. Editor David Kern, who didn't cover himself in glory, worked mainly on B-films like Maniac Cop. Throughout, Tobe Hooper was now working with a crew that were light years away from the talent he had with him on the likes of Lifeforce and Invaders From Mars. To make things worse, those who were financing his film had their own ideas which clashed with what he'd written - and they would make their presence felt.

Brad Dourif stated in interviews that Spontaneous Combustion didn't turn out the way it was meant to - and that it was at the "mercy of people who didn't know what they were doing." He bluntly says that "the producers destroyed it" and the love story that was initially envisioned morphed into something more lowbrow and schlocky, with his character running around shooting flames - killing people and being a general menace. In other words, it would have been a far better movie, but wouldn't have been as much fun as it is now - and probably not championed by the people who have a certain tenderness for it. He also says that the "better my acting was in some of the later scenes, the funnier film was," and I have to admit that nobody plays "crazy" as entertainingly as Brad Dourif does. When he loses his temper in this he really goes places. When you combine that with the various effects created to make it seem like he's shooting fire it's a sight and sound to behold.

Apart from the awful pacing, continuity errors, and confusing plot twists the story tries to add more to it's 'government interfering in our lives' theme with an interesting discourse on being pro-choice when there are medical concerns during pregnancy, and also the inherited harm that can be caused when biological experimentation collides with gestation. It's not The Matrix or A Clockwork Orange, and we've seen plenty of horror and sci-fi films use 'scientific experimentation' to show governments intruding into areas recklessly and causing lasting harm, but it's at least something. As Dourif says, the love story is going nowhere and we're more concerned with Sam's rage. It would have been interesting to explore the topic of rage more in this - but unfortunately that's not well set up, and by the time Sam starts flying into fits of fury we're not sure if it's his anger causing the combustion or the combustion causing the anger. For the most part it veers towards exploitation by burning as many characters alive as it can.

It's films like these that create a large separation between my emotional feeling for the movie itself and what I rate it. Conversely, I might dislike a film, or be bored by it, but rate it highly because of it's attributes and how well made it is - but for the most part I try to combine the two and give some indication to how I feel. My low rating for Spontaneous Combustion might mislead people as to how I feel about it, but I have to admit that this is a very poorly made film - in almost every regard. It's a lot of fun - but not put together very well. It does still contain that Tobe Hooper vision that outstripped his ability and budget when he actually started making a film - and that vision still has a heart and soul to it, despite residing in a trashy horror film like this. The producers wanted terror and fun though, and whatever Hooper was thinking, it wasn't on the same wavelength as what the people with the money had in their minds. When you get right down to it, Spontaneous Combustion is the very definition of a hot mess.